The cross-dressed heroine and female mobility in "The Faerie Queene" and "The Merchant of Venice"

Sim Byram Shattuck


From the beginning of Western civilization, women--particularly those of the wealthier or more powerful families--have been locked inside their homes in order to protect their virginity, a commodity that could help insure their fathers' alliances with other powerful males from other families. This immurement of females lasted all their lives and was part of the overall definition of what it meant to be a woman. In Spenser's The Faerie Queene and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the two prominent female characters, respectively Britomart and Portia, are noblewomen who must overcome both the physical and psychological effects of womanly immurement so that they can save their future husbands from imprisonment or debt. They accomplish their tasks by dressing as and pretending to be men, who would of course be in a position to help other men, whereas women, through their low social status and lack of professional skills, would be of no use. Thus, Britomart and Portia are themselves put by their creators in a position where they have to overcome partially the predestined male-dominated outcome of any English Renaissance literary plot; that is, they must partially defeat the ends of patriarchal thought that must eventually consign women to secondary or nonexistent roles in domestic and civic life, as well as in literature, no matter how well they best men at their own games--the original effect called patriarchal recuperation. Though Spenser and Shakespeare by no means wanted to undermine patriarchal recuperation, their creation of such interesting and challenging female characters, combined with the fully developed desire to extend humanitas that developed at the end of the sixteenth century, allowed them unwittingly to create females who manage to wrest control of their lives from men and to garner rights over their own lives: Spenser takes Britomart seriously as the founder of Queen Elizabeth's dynasty, not as the bumbling-but-admirable guerriera of Italian Renaissance literature but as a warrior and creator of empire; further, Shakespeare lets Portia take back control of her fortune from her newlywed spouse Bassanio while simultaneously pretending to accede to his traditional role as the all-governing husband. Though more radical feminine characters appeared later in Jacobean polemics and literature, Spenser and Shakespeare unwittingly undermined patriarchal recuperation in ways unknown before, and they added two more small steps to what would eventually make women characters more active and reflect the growth of female freedom.